Asit Das asit1917 at gmail.com
Fri Jun 6 06:03:03 CDT 2014

The Hindu  |  FARAH NAQVI  |  June 6, 2014
Hanging from a tree

We need a public, consumable, spectacle of remorse and penitence

Hanging bodies from trees is what white supremacists routinely did in the
American South after the Civil War. Emancipated Black men were lynched and
strung up like animals for the world to see. It was the sport of power.
Slavery had been abolished, but the masters of a slave society were
determined to crush the quest for liberation. These were not crimes in
sense that we understand crime. For crimes committed under the cover of
darkness, by stealth, signify something else entirely; they signify the
existence of a legal and moral order, howsoever weak, that enforces secrecy
and concealment; that forces perpetrators to slink away and hide. But these
hangings were part of a public drum-beating semiotic of power; unspoken
racial social laws enforced by terror.

*Human to animal*

Stringing up human beings, as opposed to simply beating them to death, was
also a signifier of something else — of de-humanising and making carcass of
the Black body. The victim was often killed by other means — shot,
strangled, beaten, tortured to death. But the act was not complete until
they were also converted to mere hanging carcass, hands and feet tied,
swaying in the wind, exposed to the elements, a body profaned, stripped of
the ceremony of dignity accorded to a human in death. Through this one
simple act, the White master converted the Black human into animal, and
trumpeted his complete power over it. Much like the hunter plants his heavy
boot on the body of a dead tiger, and poses for the camera, revelling in
complete submission of the beast. Or nails its disembodied head on a
display trophy wall. For these are public acts, that have no meaning unless
they are publically consumed. Those who do and those who watch are
intrinsically part of the same codified messaging. The objective is display
of the might of one, submission and subjugation of the other.

This is what has happened in Badaun in 21st century India. The consumption
of the living bodies of two young ‘low-caste’ girls (in the act of gang
rape) was completed by the consumption of their de-humanised, dead,
subjugated, ‘low-caste’ bodies as public and media spectacle. The media
came to town, as did a cavalier array of politicians. They all came,
participated in a codified spectacle, looked up at the shamed tree, and
left saying nothing.

The full meaning of what happened still seems to elude most of us. Instead
we scramble for solutions like toilets for women. These two girls did not
get strung up on a mango tree because of lack of toilets. They were strung
up because, despite town criers hailing India’s first post-caste,
post-identity election, the fact is that our entrenched hierarchal
identities did not take a suicidal walk into the glory of an aspirational
new dawn. They merely coalesced into new electoral shoals, now out for

Public acts of humiliation and subjugation of ‘low’ castes are the norm in
rural India. And the ‘low-caste’ woman-body, a site of multiple meanings
(as unclean and forbidden, yet desired and easy object for upper-caste
consumption, and site for vengeance and subjugation), is often the target.
What is novel is that more and more of her screams are slipping out from
the silenced hinterland, and piercing the urban eardrum.

*Need for a maximalist response*

Two ‘low-caste’ girls were hung on a tree like slaughtered animals. Yet the
state system foot-drags and trots out the same minimalist responses with
banal regularity — suspension of police officials, rape crisis centres and
offers of compensation to the family. Where is the core of alarm in the
moral body politic? Why not the maximalist response? Not mere suspension
but criminal action to the fullest extent of the law against the
rapist-hangmen and their police collaborators, full security to the family,
to witnesses and the healing human hand of support for the long legal
journey that lies ahead. And what of us, all who have watched this? “But
even those who were only distant witnesses of the kill,” writes Elias
Canetti in *Crowds and Power* , about the hunting pack, “may have a claim
to part of the prey. When this is the case, spectators are counted as
accomplices of the deed; they share the responsibility for it and partake
of its fruits.” Together these men raped and hanged, and made us all watch
caste at play like spectator sport.

In this case, as both metaphor and meaning, something more than pro forma
promises of legal action is needed. Surely we need an equally public,
consumable, spectacle of remorse and penitence? Where is the plaque under a
mango tree, or under a thousand such trees, memorialising these horrors so
they may never recur? Where is the leader, or a thousand leaders, saying
“never again”?

For if the “new” national mantra of development and governance has no space
for seeking this redemption, our moral order, weakened as it is, lies truly
scattered to the winds.

*(Farah Naqvi is a writer and activist working on public policy for rights
of the most marginalised.)*

The Opinion Pages <http://www.nytimes.com/pages/opinion/index.html> | Op-Ed
ContributorIndia’s Feudal Rapists


WHEN a distressed father is reporting his daughter’s disappearance to a
policeman in India, there are some questions he doesn’t want to hear. “What
is your caste?” is one of them. Yet, the father, Sohan Lal, said this was
the first thing the police asked him last Tuesday, when he begged them for
help. After revealing his low-caste background as a Shakya, Mr. Lal said
the officers mocked him and refused to lift a finger.

Hours later, Mr. Lal’s daughter, 12, and a female cousin, 14, were found
hanging <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27622236> by their scarves from
a mango tree in Katra Saadatganj, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. They had
been raped. His daughter had last been seen with a group of brothers from
the Yadav caste, which is the dominant caste in the village.

Our understanding of their deaths will be incomplete until we recognize the
role of the caste system in India’s rape crisis.

For much of India’s history the lower castes, especially the Dalits (once
known as untouchables), have been routinely raped by the landowning upper
castes. Better legal protections, urbanization and social mobility have
helped reduce caste-based discrimination, but not enough. Dalit women are
still the most likely to be victims of gang rapes. An analysis of Uttar
Pradesh’s crime statistics for 2007 by the People’s Union for Civil
Liberties showed that 90 percent of rape victims in 2007
<http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-14058814> were Dalit women.

Since December 2012, when a 23-year-old woman from the Kurmi caste, another
low caste, died after being gang raped and attacked with an iron rod by
five men in a moving bus, India has been undergoing a process of soul
searching. Yet the caste system has not been mentioned enough in the
debate. While attacks against Western tourists and women in urban centers
have attracted a great deal of attention, rapes of lower-caste women
routinely fail to provoke an outcry. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for
example, has yet to condemn the rape and murder in Katra Saadatganj.

It is no surprise that the caste system, and the unequal society it
produces, leads to moral blind spots that hide rapes from public view.
Caste historically determined where you lived, what you did, whom you
married, even what you ate. In many villages, those rules are still in
place, decades after caste discrimination was banned.

Much of the caste-based sexual violence emerges out of a feudal sense of
entitlement among some upper-caste men. “You have not really experienced
the land until you have experienced the Dalit women” is a popular saying
among the landowning Jats, a politically powerful group that, despite being
relatively low caste themselves, are above the Dalits.

Though upper-caste men are rarely imprisoned for raping Dalits, they have a
widely accepted defense at their disposal, should they ever need one: They
would never touch a lower-caste woman for fear of being “polluted.” In one
famous 1995 case, a Dalit woman’s allegations of gang rape were dismissed
by a judge who claimed that “an upper-caste man could not have defiled
himself by raping a lower-caste woman.”

Caste discrimination is exacerbated by corrupt and inefficient governance,
which encourages people to seek political power through caste allegiances.
Caste bias seems to have been at work in the Katra Saadatganj case. One
need only look at the names of the accused brothers (Pappu Yadav, Awadhesh
Yadav and Urvesh Yadav) and that of the head of the police station (Ram
Vilas Yadav) for evidence that they belonged to the same caste. Two more
police constables involved are also Yadavs.

When the police and judiciary cannot be relied on to resolve disputes, rape
often becomes a means of retribution. This has been apparent in
Hindu-Muslim riots as well as in intercaste conflict. “Rape is a weapon to
silence the assertions of the community. A way to teach us a lesson. To
show us, including our men, that they are helpless and cannot protect their
own women,” said Asha Kowtal, a Dalit activist.

Such thinking seems to have been at work in March, in the state of Haryana,
when four lower-caste girls were gang-raped and dumped on a train station
platform more than 100 miles from their homes. There is evidence that a
conflict between Dalits and Jats precipitated the attack. According to the
Indian newspaper Mint, a land dispute led Jats to declare “a social and
economic boycott against the Dalits,” perhaps culminating in the gang rape.

We will never be able to address India’s rape crisis if we remain blind to
the machinations of caste discrimination. In the past, it has taken
gruesome cases of violence to ensure coverage of rape. Indeed, perhaps the
only reason the Katra Saadatganj hangings attracted attention was that
grisly photographs of the dangling bodies were published in Indian
newspapers and circulated on social media, despite complaints by Dalit
activists that this was disrespectful.

But we cannot rely on the shock value of particularly horrific cases to
lead to change; we need structural solutions. The government should start
by amending the 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act, which is designed to
address caste-based violence. The conviction rate under the act is
notoriously low — according to a 2012 report
more than half of all cases are closed before they reach the courts. In the
case of Mr. Lal’s daughter and her cousin, the police did not register the
crime under the act at all. Amendment proposals that would ensure crucial
witness protection, more legal support and special courts are sitting in
Parliament right now, awaiting approval.

There is no doubt that it was wrong for the police to ask Mr. Lal about
caste. But for the rest of us, when it comes to understanding India’s rape
crisis, not talking about caste is just as bad.

Amana Fontanella-Khan <http://amanafontanellakhan.com/> is the author of
“Pink Sari Revolution.”

A version of this op-ed appears in print on June 5, 2014, on page A27 of
the New York edition with the headline: India’s Feudal Rapists.

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